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Honour Bayes: Theatre buildings & communities

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The oldest working theatre in the country, Bristol Old Vic, turned its lights back on last week after 18 months of refurbishment. This week warm reviews of its opening production, John O’Keeffe’s Wild Oats, show it is in as rude a health as it was when it housed rowdy 18th century audiences.

Though auditoriums are quieter now they are just as demanding, a demand that will be well satisfied with the fully kitted out new building. Modern concerns such as sightlines and access have been improved whilst the intimacy that comes with the 18th century design remains.

Now more than ever, with churches, community centres and libraries in decline and individualism on the rise, spaces where people can congregate to engage with stories are of vital importance.

As expensive as theatre buildings are they are worth preserving. In a time when funds are tight and big theatres appear to be taking most for structural upkeep, interrogating their validity is important. But these buildings house much more than the shows which take place in their darkened auditoriums, acting as much needed spaces where communities can be built and nurtured.

This is not a nostalgic wish to hang on to beautiful old buildings. To look to a – some would say much uglier – contemporary example The National Theatre is a perfect indicator of the importance of such spaces. The NT has sometimes been unfavourably compared to its mobile counterparts in Scotland and Wales, with questions about its ability to serve anyone outside the capital often shouted.

But under the directorship of Nicholas Hytner it has flowered into an umbrella organisation that houses much more than simply its main stage shows. The Watch This Space and Inside Out festivals have given their audience a feeling of ownership for the whole building and an understanding that all its nooks and crannies are being put to good use.

Meanwhile the increasingly essential National Theatre Studio proves that providing work space for artists from all spectrums of theatre fosters exciting interdisciplinary projects.

With a focus on supporting each artist individually, this fertilisation is a happy side effect of a building that creates neighbours out of playwrights, performance artists and devising theatre companies. It can only serve to enrich our theatre ecology in a way that mobile institutions without such brick and mortar resources will find more challenging.

There are of course some great organisations that offer this network of support for artists remotely, Forest Fringe to name but one. But in terms of creating a home for audiences this is harder to do without a roof over your head.

Bristol Old Vic has done a sterling job whilst its base has been rebuilt. But the possibilities for outreach and development are doubled now that they have the space to house such projects. It may have cost a packet, but I think such capital development is worth it. With over two thousand individuals from the surrounding area making financial contributions to the capital appeal, it appears that the people of Bristol do too.


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